No. 7 Auburn’s new-look ground game a work in progress
AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Auburn’s running game is unsurprisingly a work in progress.
With a new tailback and an overhauled offensive line, the seventh-ranked Tigers still managed an opening, 21-16 win over No. 9 Washington despite struggles running the ball.
Kam Martin had a workmanlike 80 yards on 22 carries. Redshirt freshman JaTarvious Whitlow had the most important run of the day — what turned out to be a game-winning 10-yard touchdown — but produced 18 yards on his other seven carries.
Improving the ground game is priority No. 1 for coach Gus Malzahn’s offense, which has been prone to slow starts , going into Game 2 Saturday against Alabama State.
“We need to run the football better,” Malzahn said Tuesday. “I think we averaged 3.3 yards per carry, and when we’re at our best it’s more than that. We’ve got to do better than that. But at the same time, a very quality defensive front.
“The advantage we have is we played against a big-time defensive front so now we kind of know and we have some areas we can get better in and all that. Some teams don’t find out that information until the second half of the season.”
It’s hardly cause for alarm with the passing game clicking behind quarterback Jarrett Stidham. But Malzahn’s offense has always started with the running game, and he’s having to replace Southeastern Conference offensive player of the year Kerryon Johnson .
The Tigers and Boise State are the only FBS team to produce a 1,000-yard rusher in each of the past nine seasons.
The offensive line has undergone some changes, too. UMass grad transfer Jack Driscoll started at right tackle and Kaleb Kim is the new center. Left tackle Prince Tega Wanogho and guards Mike Horton and Marquel Harrell all started at times last season.
Malzahn isn’t predicting any changes to the offensive line starters.
“Really, it’s not just the offensive line,” he said. “It’s everything. We had some young running backs in there and usually the first time they get in a game everything is sped up and sometimes they don’t slow down and read it right. It’s kind of everything that goes with it.”
Martin is the Tigers’ most experienced back after producing two 100-yard games last season. But this could be more of a platoon system with players like Whitlow logging more carries along with the 5-foot-10, 193-pound Martin.
Martin is confident the running game will get better.
“Like Coach says, to win in this league you’ve got to run the ball,” he said. “To win championships, you’ve got to run the ball. That’s what we’re going to focus on this week, running the ball and we’ll improve on it. I know we will.”
NOTES: Wide receivers Eli Stove and Will Hastings have been cleared to fully participate in practice after spring knee injuries, Malzahn said. He didn’t offer a timetable for their return. “Until they’re 100 percent for sure and I’m 100 percent for sure, they will not be on the field,” Malzahn said. “We’ll see when that is. Like I said last time, there’s a really good chance that both of them will be back this year.”